Branwell Bronte (1817-1848) has a place on this website as his work is exhibited – not just at the Bronte Museum at Haworth – but at the National Portrait Gallery in London. If he could have anticipated this honour in his lifetime, it may have extended his life, which became more aimless, desolate and self-destructive with every passing year until his early death.
The biographical details of his life are well-known. As the only and favoured son of the family – the ‘bright star’ – there was pressure on his to succeed in life. But at what? He did not possess the strength of faith to follow in his father’s footsteps as a curate, and his talents, in common with his sisters, inclined him in a literary and artistic direction.
His father paid for him, and his sisters, to have drawing lessons, at first in 1829-30 from John Bradley, a Keighley artist, then later, in 1834, from William Robinson, a well-regarded society portrait painter from Leeds.
The Rev. Bronte paid Robinson two guineas per lesson – an enormous sum of money then – which may have (according to the Bronte biographer, Dr. Juliet Barker) caused the penurious Robinson to encourage Branwell beyond his talents to aspire to become a professional artist. Branwell was experimenting with different types of painting at this time, including using his sisters as portrait models, but Robinson’s instruction to Branwell was later the subject of criticism by a friend of Branwell, the Halifax sculptor and artist, Joseph Bentley Leyland. Leyland felt that Robinson had failed to instruct Branwell correctly in mixing pigments and applying them properly to catch subtle variations in light and shade.
But in 1835, aged 18, and convinced now that art was the career direction to take, Branwell drafted a letter of application to the Royal Academy expressing his ‘earnest desire to enter as a Probationary Student’. However, there is no evidence the letter was sent, and there is no record of such a letter ever being received by the Royal Academy, as it is likely that the Rev. Bronte would have found it financially difficult to support Branwell in London over an extended period of training.
Between 1835 and 1838, Branwell unsuccessfully pursued a literary career, but in 1838 came back to his artistic ambitions and by July of that year had established a studio and found lodgings at Fountain Street in Bradford. Here he sought work and painted portraits of his landlord and landlady, Mr and Mrs Kirby, as well as other Bradford worthies introduced to him by the Rev. William Morgan, a family friend. The portrait below of John Brown was painted around this time. Brown was a friend of Branwell and worked as a stonemason and as sexton of Haworth Parish Church.
However, by May 1839, after less than a year, he had given up the studio, and with it any hopes of making a living from portrait painting. Branwell had enjoyed the alcohol-fueled social encounters with other artists and writers in Bradford, including Joseph Bentley Leyland, but it seems did not have the persistence or temperament to succeed as an artist. As can be seen from the portrait of John Brown, above, Branwell could produce a reasonable likeness of his subjects, but it is likely that the more affluent clients would have gone to Leeds, or even London, to find a professional artist.
It is also likely that Branwell’s network of friends dried up as a source of work for him and that he lacked the drive to pursue new commissions himself. Importantly too, Branwell’s art was often at its most engaging when he worked spontaneously, responding to his emotions, rather than to order, as is the case with portrait painting.
His life after his retreat from portrait painting was a downward spiral, with spells of short-lived work as a clerk and a tutor, punctuated by bouts of drunkeness and addiction to opiates. He died at Haworth Parsonage in 1848, most likely of tuberculosis, his body weakened by his alcoholism and drug addiction. One of his final spontaneous sketches presents a self-summary of his life: ‘Our Lady of Greif (sic)’ – see below.
See also ‘Mrs Isaac Kirby’ in ‘Bradford Paintings’ on this site at http://www.notjusthockney.info/mrs-isaac-kirby/